Apollo 13 in Real Time offers new insight into mission, 50 years later
March 13, 2020
— "I'm naturally concerned. How do things look this morning?"
It is 7:06 a.m. CDT on April 14, 1970. Ten hours earlier, almost to the minute, an explosion on board the Apollo 13 spacecraft ("Houston, we've had a problem") put the mission into peril, threatening the lives of astronauts Jack Swigert, Fred Haise and Jim Lovell.
"My kids aren't up yet and they don't even know what is going on. They went to sleep before all this came up last night. And I was wondering what I could tell them as far as... um, um, in other words, are we really pretty safe right now?"
Marilyn Lovell, Jim's Lovell wife, is on the phone with Ken Mattingly, the capsule communicator (capcom) in Mission Control. Were it not for Mattingly being exposed to the German measles less than a week earlier, it would have been him, not Swigert, now aboard Apollo 13.
"We got the first mid-course correction off, which puts them on, they are now on a free return trajectory. I don't know if that happened before you went to bed or not."
"Yeah, well, I didn't go to bed until, I think it was 4, and I got up at 5, so I really haven't had much sleep."
That poignant exchange — you can hear the concern and sheer exhaustion in Marilyn Lovell's voice — might read as though it came out of a movie script. But it is real; an example of one of the many never-before-heard conversations that are presented through the Apollo 13 In Real Time website, which launched on Friday (March 13).
The site, like the Apollo 17 and Apollo 11 real-time mission experiences that came before it, is the work of NASA software engineer and historian Ben Feist. Together with a small team of volunteers and funding provided by the space agency, Feist has created the ultimate way to relive every moment of the Apollo 13 mission, 50 years later.
The site incorporates all of the space-to-ground and on board audio; all of the mission control film footage and news pool television transmissions; and all of the flight photography synced to the time line of when every word was spoken, scene was filmed and image was taken.
"The most important aspect of this website is the included mission control audio that was digitized specifically for this project," said Feist in an interview with collectSPACE. "This material has been in the National Archives and hasn't been heard since 1970. It includes recordings of the flight controllers throughout mission control for the entire mission."
Like the 2019 feature-length documentary "Apollo 11," on which Feist also worked, the audio includes the conversations at each mission control console, to and from each flight controller's back room support teams and phone conversations like the one between Mattingly and Marilyn Lovell.
"The last five of these tapes were only recently found and were just digitized at Johnson Space Center this past January," said Feist. "They contain the period of the mission surrounding the on board explosion that disabled the mission and were used as part of the accident investigation in 1970."
"A member of our volunteer team, Jeremy Cooper, wrote a brilliant piece of software that uses data signals on the tapes to measure the severe speed distortions that plagued these recordings. This allowed for the distortion unique to each tape to be corrected out of each digital sample via a proprietary process. The result is stunningly clear audio that is perfectly synced to the original mission time. There is 7,200 hours of this material on the website," Feist said.
Another member of the team, archivist Stephen Slater, then painstakingly matched the audio to the available silent film shot inside Mission Control.
"I used reference points in the room such as mission clocks and console displays to narrow down the possible timeframes," Slater told collectSPACE. "The end result really brings some quite famous Mission Operations Control Room moments to life, some of which had actually been re-enacted for the 1995 movie based purely on the audio."
Also included is commentary from the Apollo Flight Journal and NASA's recently released 4K recreations of what the Apollo 13 crew saw while swinging around the moon based on data from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).
"Ernie Wright at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center provided us the raw LRO renderings and helped us to time them to mission time," said Feist. "This allows users of the website to see exactly what the crew saw during their loop around the far side of the moon on the exact trajectory they were on, when they were on it, with the lighting exactly as it was on that day in 1970."
It took Feist and his team eight months to compile the multimedia for Apollo 13 in Real Time. Although it has been a rush ("We were late the day we started," said Feist), they also found time to pause and appreciate the history being uncovered by their work — like the phone call between Mattingly and Marilyn Lovell.
"The flight controllers were all on the ball and professional throughout the unexpected and dangerous events that took place on this mission. However, all of the phone calls made from the console to the outside were also recorded and during these more personal moments, you can hear the stress and concern in the controllers' voices," said Feist.
"These human moments are the most surprising and provide an excellent way to calibrate just how excellent everyone was in Mission Control at putting their emotions aside and working the problem."
The Apollo 13 in Real Time website, shown here at the point of the explosion aboard the spacecraft, combines newly-digitized mission control audio with multimedia from the 1970 mission to provide the public with a new way to experience history. (Apollo In Real Time)
Marilyn Lovell, wife of Apollo 13 commander James Lovell, on the phone on April 14, 1970, the day after the explosion on board the Apollo 13 spacecraft. (LIFE)
Apollo 13 flight controllers in the Mission Operations Control Room at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center on April 16, 1970. (NASA)
The launch of the Apollo 13 in Real Time website precedes the 50th anniversary of the mission, April 11 - 17, 2020. (NASA)